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The Boys of Arlington: Will Clark, the new sheriff in town

(RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports)

 

Editor’s note: In his latest installment of the Boys of Arlington, retired beat writer T.R. Sullivan looks back on how the arrival of free agent first baseman Will Clark changed the culture and chemistry inside the Rangers clubhouse at a time it was badly needed.

 

A couple of hundred people showed up at the Ballpark in Arlington on Nov. 23, 1993, and the majority of them wore hard hats.

They were there to complete the construction of the new ballpark, scheduled to open in a few months. While they went about their work, the rest of us gathered in the unfinished right-center field bleachers where Will Clark stood just above the Rangers’ bullpen and addressed a still-somewhat surprised media.

Clark was the Rangers’ first baseman, and Rafael Palmeiro was not. Word was a new sheriff had arrived in town.

An argument could be made that Palmeiro was the better player. There was no doubt who was the bigger name. The Rangers had just signed Will “The Thrill” Clark, a five-time All-Star, the former All-American with the fierce scowl and national reputation for being one of the elite superstars in the game.

George W. Bush was among those who stood behind him on the podium with a big smile on his face. The Rangers were getting ready to move into a new ballpark, and they had just signed a marquee player to lead the way.

Even for a team that had several heavyweights — Jose Canseco, Juan Gonzalez, Kevin Brown — this was still a huge free-agent signing.

I raised my hand and asked my question.

“The Rangers want to win the World Series, they expect to win a World Series and they expect you to be the one who leads them there. How do you feel about that?”

Clark looked at me and said, “T.R., I didn’t come here to lose.”

The Rangers won with Clark. They just didn’t win the World Series. The best they could do in his five years in Texas was win the first two division titles in franchise history. For a franchise that had never experienced a postseason during 22 years in Arlington Stadium, that, in itself, was significant.

More than that, though, Clark did more to change the “culture” on the Rangers than any other player in club history. That is what he was brought in to do, and that’s what he did.

That is not a unanimous opinion. Far from it. Clark could irritate as much as he could influence. Not everybody saw him as the tough, gritty warrior. Clark had a shrill voice that often took on a sarcastic, biting tone.

He also wasn’t the same player he was during his best seasons in San Francisco, where he was one of the most feared hitters in the game. Injuries took a substantial toll through the years, and his off-season conditioning program only served to slow the erosion. In 1993, he hit .283/.367/.432 with 14 home runs and 73 RBIs.

That alone brought some risk to the decision to sign Clark to a five-year contract, but the Rangers were looking for more than just numbers from Will Clark. They needed someone who could shake up an underachieving team.

The simple fact is the Rangers were a much different team after Clark arrived than before he signed with Texas. They weren’t as talented, but you could tangibly see the Rangers adopt a far more team-first approach rather than me-first. Clark had as much to do with that as anybody.

Trouble in Arlington

From 1989 to 1993, the Rangers had four winning seasons in five years but didn’t get close to a division championship. Those teams had tremendous individual talent, but something else lacking despite having Canseco, Julio Franco, Ruben Sierra, Palmeiro, Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez and Dean Palmer in the lineup and Nolan Ryan, Brown, Kenny Rogers and Jeff Russell on their pitching staffs.

Rangers president Tom Schieffer was really the one who was getting impatient and first perceived there might be a needed change in culture. In 1994, the Rangers moved into a new ballpark with high expectations. Schieffer said it was time to win, and if that put pressure on people, too bad.

The Rangers didn’t win. Nobody did that horrible year. The Rangers were in first place on Aug. 10 but with a record of 52-62, having lost six straight and 14 of their [past 20. This was the first year that Major League Baseball went with three divisions in each league. With only four teams in the American League West, there seemed a good chance the first-place team was going to finish with a losing record.

Then the players went on strike and didn’t come back. In mid-September, the season was called off, and the World Series was canceled for the first time since 1904.

It was a turbulent season for the Rangers. Brown and Clark were both labor warriors, determined to stand strong for the union. Gonzalez was indifferent and disinterested. Emotions bubbled over in the Rangers’ clubhouse and dugout. During a 4-3 loss to the Angels on July 31, Gonzalez and Brown had to be separated in the dugout by teammates. The problem was Brown had thrown a typical tantrum in the dugout and Gonzalez’s sunglasses got knocked to the ground.

Juan Gonzalez (AP photo/Roberto Borea)

“That [guy] talks too much shit,” Gonzalez said.

Manager Kevin Kennedy grew frustrated as the strike approached and his players bickered among themselves. Not even a historic perfect game by Rogers could bring the Rangers together.

“I’ve never seen so much selfishness on one team,” Kennedy told me.

After one late-season loss in Oakland, when a ninth-inning error by second baseman Jeff Frye proved costly, Kennedy let loose with a postgame tirade in the visiting manager’s office. As his angry voice spilled over across the hall into the clubhouse, Clark got up and shut the door to the room.

Schieffer made a decisive decision when the season was over. With Bush running for governor of Texas, he and Rusty Rose were co-managing partners for a partnership of at least a couple dozen partners. They decided a course correction was needed.

“We weren’t winning, and we weren’t having any fun,” Schieffer said. “We decided if we weren’t going to win, we were going to have fun.”

The Clark Manifesto

On June 1, 1994, Clark was out of the lineup. The Rangers were playing the Brewers that night in Milwaukee, and it was the first time Clark was given a night off. I went up to him to ask about it, looking for a quick quote and a two-inch pregame note.

Clark was standing there in shorts and a t-shirt. He wasn’t going to take batting practice. A night off was going to be a complete night off, although he would be available if the game warranted it.

I got more than a quick quote. Clark and I stood there in the visitor’s clubhouse talking for over 30 minutes about baseball, leadership, intensity, delivering in the clutch, anything else that came to mind.

“You don’t step in and say ‘I’m a leader,’ ” Clark said. “There are little, subtle differences that you can bring to a ballclub, things like pulling aside a young player and giving batting tips. These are the kind of instances where a veteran player can have an effect on a younger player. One thing that I am not going to do is come into a locker room and say, ‘I’m a leader.’ Hopefully, I’m the one key guy that can make a difference.

“I think an intense player is one who doesn’t like to lose. Being intense means finding a way to get the job done on the field in order to better your ballclub. The biggest thing is that when you get in a pressure-packed situation, you can’t let it get to you. You’ve got to be able to relax and separate yourself from the moment.”

Early in his career, Clark had not been afraid to speak his mind. Now with the Rangers, he was a savvy veteran who knew better.

“If I see something, I’ll say it to a player one-on-one,” Clark said. “I’m more of a one-on-one guy. I prefer to keep things in-house. If I say something, you’re never going to know about it. It stays in the clubhouse.”

He talked about how much of a challenge it was to face a great pitcher and how he relished the confrontation. One was Orel Hershiser, the Dodgers All-Star right-hander who faced Clark often during the Giants years.

“I’d get in the batter’s box, stare at Orel, tip my cap to him, and he’d do the same and then we’d get after it,” Clark said. “I loved that.”

Clark is supposedly famously responsible for one big change in baseball. He is supposedly the reason why pitchers cover their mouths during a mound visit. In Game 1 of the 1989 NLCS, Clark hit a grand slam off Cubs pitcher Greg Maddux. The home run came on the first pitch right after manager Don Zimmer made a mound visit, and Maddux told him he was going to throw “fastball in” to Clark.

Ever since then, pitchers have been covering their mouths with their gloves, although Maddux once told The Athletic he covered his face because his mother didn’t like seeing him cuss on the mound.

One night during that same trip to Milwaukee, I was standing behind the cage, absent-mindedly watching batting practice, when Clark stepped in to take his cuts.

This was at old County Stadium, one of those ballparks where the fences are covered with billboard advertising. Clark took a few swings, then looked at me and said …

“T.R., pick out a sign.”

I shrugged and pointed to a tire ad in right field. Clark hit the next pitch right at the sign, a line drive that one-hopped the wall.

“Pick another.”

Left-center, Miller Lite or whatever it was. Clark ripped another on a line out toward his target. We played the game for a few more pitches, Clark on target and cackling all the way.

Clark was at his best that season, hitting .329 with 13 home runs, 80 RBIs and a .501 slugging percentage before the season was called after 114 games.

Change for the better

 After the 1994 season, Schieffer fired Tom Grieve, who had been general manager for 10 years. During that time, Grieve and his staff had assembled an impressive roster of talent, most of it coming through scouting and player development. But Schieffer decided the Rangers needed something different.

Doug Melvin was hired as general manager. He, in turn, fired Kennedy and hired Johnny Oates. Canseco was traded, and Brown was allowed to leave through free agency without any effort to re-sign him.

The Rangers’ remake was underway, and they started adding veterans who were similar to Clark. Mickey Tettleton and Mark McLemore were signed in 1995. One year later it was Darryl Hamilton, Ken Hill and Dave Valle, all guys who fit in with the Rangers’ super core of young players that included Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez, Rusty Greer, Palmer, Darren Oliver and others.

Oates was the perfect manager for the group, low-key but professional. He learned baseball in the Orioles system during the Earl Weaver years and strongly believed in playing the game right and being fundamentally sound. Old-school, just like Clark.

The Rangers were 74-70 in 1995 as Melvin started building a championship team. Clark was bothered by a cracked bone in his left elbow after hitting a wall on April 28 but stayed off the disabled list. He still hit .302 with 16 homers, 92 RBIs and a .480 slugging percentage.

Clark had surgery on the elbow after the season and arrived in spring training proudly displaying a smattering of bone chips in a petri dish. He was also on a ballclub ready to win, and he was ready to lead the way.

A season to remember

The 1996 Rangers are one of the most iconic teams in club history. It is not just that the team won the first division championship in club history but how they did it. This was a team that clearly had special character reflective of their first baseman.

“One of the baddest teams ever assembled,” pitcher Bobby Witt said. “I mean bad in an awesome way. The team character was beyond phenomenal.”

It started in spring training when just about every position player was in camp before the first reporting date. Back then, most players waited until the actual reporting date, while the Rangers annually had several stars show up after the reporting date.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before,” veteran third-base coach Jerry Narron said.

Johnny Oates (AP file photo)

With Kennedy as manager, it always seemed I was asking somebody in spring training, “The manager was hoping you would be here before today. How do you feel about that?”

Oates didn’t have to worry about that, and the Rangers began the season on fire. Clark’s first-inning double off Roger Clemens drove in the first run on Opening Day, and the Rangers’ 5-3 victory started a seven-game winning streak.

One hallmark of the team was the pregame muster. About 15 minutes before taking the field, most of the team was already in the dugout, laughing and joking, with Clark and Darryl Hamilton the two primary ringleaders.

Another was the off-day barbecues, usually held at Witt’s house with almost everybody showing up with their families to continue the camaraderie they were enjoying at the park.

“Overall, the thing I remember about that season and that team was it truly was a team,” Greer said. “We did everything together. We all got along. We didn’t have the most talented team, but we had a tight bond and chemistry. To this day, you can ask guys what was the best team you have ever been on, and they’ll say 1996.”

The Rangers spent almost the entire season in first place, but it was not a case of everything going right. That was especially true for Clark, who was hitting .302 with six home runs and 32 RBIs through 59 games before straining a left quadriceps muscle June 7. He went on the disabled list for the first of three times that summer.

The Rangers were 67-50 with Clark in the lineup that season and 23-22 when he was sidelined. But after enjoying a strong start, he hit .266 with seven home runs in 33 RBIs in his final 59 games, much of that playing through pain.

“He’s amazing,” hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo said. “I wish I had more like him who have what he has inside.”

“Will told me you might feel like you can’t play,” Greer said. “But if your team needs you, you go out and play until something blows out. If you think about Will, that’s how he played, broken toe, hurt elbow, whatever. He sacrificed numbers because his elbow was hurt, but he felt he was better than the next option.”

The Rangers’ team character helped them hold on in the end, when they held a nine-game lead with 17 to play. The lead was down to a half-game with seven to go after a 6-5 loss to the Angels on Sept. 20 in Anaheim. But the Rangers rallied behind John Burkett and Hill to win the next two games and held onto the division.

“We weren’t worried about it,” McLemore said. “Nobody panicked. It was down to one game, but nobody was worried. We kept on doing the same things we had been doing.”

The 1996 division series against the Yankees was a classic. The Rangers won the first game of the best-of-5, then lost the next two. Clark struggled through the series with just two hits in 16 at-bats

But he had one chance, one big chance, to be “Will the Thrill.” The Rangers trailed 6-4 in the bottom of the ninth of Game 4 with Yankees closer John Wetteland on the mound when they got a rally started. Ivan Rodriguez walked to lead off the inning, and Gonzalez walked with one out.

That brought up Clark in a situation just made for him and sure enough, Clark drove a 1-1 fastball to deep left-center.

“I thought that ball was at least off the wall,” Clark said. “I hit it pretty good.”

But the ball didn’t go that far and hung up long enough for left fielder Tim Raines to run it down. Palmer struck out and the Rangers season was over.

Afterward, Clark walked into Oates’ office.

“I’m sorry,” he told the manager. “I gave you everything I had.”

Oates never doubted it for as long as Clark played for the Rangers.

Jeff Wilson

Sports reporter for two decades. Sports fan for life. Covers the Texas Rangers. Graduate of TCU. Colorado native. Author of Purple Passion: TCU Football Legends (https://t.co/2fmXLyympx). Follow me on Twitter at @JeffWilsonTXR

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